As Ukraine’s new force western tanks prepare for the coming fight against the Russian Army, speculation on how Leopard 2s and Challenger 2s will perform against Russia’s defenses is a topic of particular interest.
As of the time of this writing. it is believe that 70-88 modern western tanks will be available to Ukraine as of the end of April. As best as I can tell, Spain, Norway, Portugal, Finland and Sweden’s deliveries remain at various stages of completion.
Promised Tank Deliveries (Excluding US Abrams)
- Challenger 2: 14 (UK)
- Leopard 2A6 x 18 （Germany）
- Leopard 2A4 x 8 (Canada）
- Leopard２A4 x8 （Norway）
- Leopard２A4 x14 (Poland）
- Leopard2A4 ｘ10 （Spain）
- Leopard 2A4 x3 (Portugal)
- Leopard 2A4 x3 (Finland)
- Strv122 x10 （Sweden）
Roughly half of Ukraine’s Western Main Battle Tank (MBT) force will be composed of 46 Leopard 2A4s. The Strv122 is a Swedish upgraded version of the Leopard 2 that roughly analogizes to the Leopard 2A5.
Thus it will be very important for Ukraine to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Leopard 2A4 specifically, compared to other variants.
One particular real combat example that I think will be studied closely will be the Turkish Army’s 2nd Armored Brigade’s attack on the Syrian city of al-Bab in December, 2016. The Turkish Army spearheaded an assault against ISIL forces equipped with Russian ATGMs and other military equipment, and lost as few as eight, as many as twelve Leopard 2A4s.
These losses to insurgent forces led some observers to proclaim that the Leopard 2A4 was a bad or overpriced tank among other simplistic conclusions, but more sophisticated analyses of the combat has led to useful observations on the tactical and operational use of the Leopard 2A4 by better understanding its vulnerabilities.
That is because understanding how those losses occurred provide a window into showing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Leopard 2A4’s design, and indicate some lessons on how the tanks should be utilized by Ukraine in the coming decisive battle against Russia.
The Battle of al-Bab
Avoiding going into the political and strategic background of the Syrian War, the Battle of al-Bab was a battle that took place between Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their allied Turkish Army forces against ISIL.
The overall context involved an offensive called Operation Euphrates Shield by FSA heavily assisted by the Turkish Army (light blue), launched against ISIL held territory,. The offensive aimed to drive ISIL forces further from the Turkish border to secure a secure buffer zone to protect Turkish security. The offensive also aimed to preempt an attempt by Western/US aligned SDF forces from connecting their two cantons of territory in the Northwest and Northeast, as SDF forces had launched their own offensive against ISIL territory simultaneously.
The FSA/Turkish offensive started on August 24, 2016, and by October had successfully overrun broad swaths of ISIL held territory. FSA and Turkish forces were approaching the strategic city of al-Bab by early November.
The battle intensified as FSA and Turkish forces began pressing attacks from the west, into the city proper by December 2016. The most intense phase of the fighting took place at this time, and it is during this time that the Turkish army lost between 8-12 Leopard 2A4s in the fighting.
While the FSA/Turkish forces drove ISIL forces out of al-Bab by February 2017, resulting in a Turkish/FSA tactical and strategic victory, the surprising number of losses of modern western MBTs in the battle against insurgents raised alarms about the vulnerabilities of the Leopard 2 tank.
How the Leopards were lost
According to the Turkish army’s report 8 tanks were lost, and a further 2 were damaged.
Of those where a cause of destruction/damage is identified, 2 are attributed to a mine/EID, 1 to an RPG or Mortar, and 5 to antitank missiles. ISIL claims they deployed Russian made 9M133 Kornet, AT-7 Metis and AT-5 Konkurs antitank missiles against these targets, which is believed to be credible.
9M133 Kornet is the most advanced Russian antitank missile introduced in 1998, with an effective range up to 5500m (3.5 mi). AT-7 Metis and AT-5 Konkurs are relatively old Soviet antitank missiles from the 1970s with shorter effective ranges of less than 1500m and significantly less penetrative ability. RPGs have even lower effective ranges of only a few hundred meters.
Interestingly, all of the reported tank losses took place in what is referred to as the “Al-Bab Hospital Area.” As there is only one hospital in al-Bab, the area is easily identifiable.
Bellingcat was further able to geolocate many of the Leopard 2 losses based on ISIL claims and photographs of wreckage after the battle. The dots represent losses by the Turkish army of armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) and in particular the blue dots represent destroyed Leopard 2A4s.
It is notable that the lost tanks range from 2km (1mi) from the Hospital, to as close as below 200m (0.1mi).
Accounts and video records of the fighting further illuminate how these losses occurred. The unit of Turkish tanks were advancing without much caution “as if on a picnic.” All accompanied dismounted infantry were deployed immediately adjacent to the tanks; the tanks were moving at the walking speed of the infantry and no scouting forces seems to have been deployed ahead of the main body of tanks.
ISIL forces opened fire on the tanks with ATGMs (Antitank Guided Missiles) from a range of 2kms, and the lack of awareness of the Turkish forces is reflected by video evidence that indicates they were unaware of the launch of the missile until impact.
The Turkish forces further failed to react in any effective way, neither taking evasive action nor returning fire. The dismounted infantry began to retreat, leaving the tanks behind--exposed and without assistance. The tanks failed to react in a coordinated manner, with some tanks continuing to advance while others began backing up to withdraw.
Further analysis of the fighting based on the nature of the damage to the tanks indicated that uniformly, damage to the tanks occurred by penetrating the lighter side armor of the Leopard 2 tanks. No frontal armor penetration was noted
Lessons from Turkish Losses at al-Bab
Aside from the loss of 8-10 Leopard 2 tanks in short span at al-Bab (concentrated exclusively in a single area of the battle), Turkish losses of Leopard 2 tanks in Syria were modest. Furthermore, outside observers rated Turkish combined arms operations against ISIL overall quite highly, and once Turkish forces learned from their shock and initial mistakes, they suffered very few further tank losses in driving ISIL forces back from al-Bab and other ISIL strongholds in North-central Syria.
3 were lost in an ambush by ISIL forces attacking with ATGMs at close range from the flank in Northern Syria. Another was lost when the side turret armor of a Leopard 2 was penetrated, detonating the Leopard 2’s ammunition rack fighting against Russian-aligned Kurdish militia using a 9K111 Fagot missile. 1 was lost to an attack by a suicide bomber driving a truck filled with explosives, and another 2 were captured by ISIL infantry that overwhelmed the tanks in urban fighting.
A consistent theme that emerges is that the Leopard 2s are found to be vulnerable when ambushed, and attacked on their weak side armor. There were zero verifiable reported losses of Leopard 2A4s whose frontal armor had been penetrated by Russian weapons.
This is, in a way, predictable from the Leopard 2A4’s design.
First introduced in December 1985, the Leopard 2A4 was a major upgrade to earlier versions of the Leopard 2 tank, adding the newly designed tungsten armor to the frontal armor (only) and other improvements to its fire control system, optics and communications equipment.
The upgrade was designed in the late Cold War context, where the Leopard 2A4 was primarily intended to counter large Soviet tank formations in long range armored combat in the flat plains of central Europe.
The Leopard 2A4 did not contemplate much combat with Soviet antitank missile forces in close range combat. The frontal tungsten armor was sufficient protection against most any ATGM (antitank guided missile) available at the time, and even today.
Protective innovations like ERA (explosive reactive armor plates) were deemed unnecessary, making the Leopard 2A4 as constructed far more vulnerable to even weaker antitank missiles from the flanks.
Later improved models of the Leopard 2, such as the 2A5, Striv122, 2A6 and 2A7 addressed these weaknesses, adding various forms of reactive armor and Tungsten armor not only to the frontal but side and rear of the Leopard 2, greatly improving its performance in closer range combat particularly against ATGM armed infantry.
This lack of side-armor protection proved to be the greatest vulnerability by Turkish Leopard 2A4s. Without any upgrades to their side armor, Turkish Leopard 2A4s suffered most of their losses from infantry ambushes on their flanks.
Thus, one simple and fast improvement could be to add explosive reactive armor plates to the Leopard 2A4s that Ukraine received.
Reactive armors are a class of armor protection for tanks first introduced in the 1970s. They are designed to defeat “shaped charge” or what are called HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) rounds.
HEAT rounds improve the penetrative force of an antitank shell by creating a hollow area at the front of the shell, focusing the explosive energy of the hard penetrative point of the shell forwards, making it more effective at punching through a tank’s armor.
Further improved versions of penetrative rounds (Explosively Formed Penetrator rounds and Tandem Shaped Charge rounds) exist but rely on relatively similar principles.
To counter these developments, Explosive Reactive Armor was created and improved upon. At the most basic level, ERA consists of a tile is created by sandwiching an explosive liner between 2 plates of steel.
The ERA functions as follows:
First, the moving plates change the effective velocity and angle of impact of the shaped charge jet, reducing the angle of incidence and increasing the effective jet velocity versus the plate element.
Second, since the plates are angled compared to the usual impact direction of shaped charge warheads, as the plates move outwards the impact point on the plate moves over time, requiring the jet to cut through fresh plates of material.
This second effect significantly increases the effective plate thickness during the impact.
More advanced forms of reactive armor exist, but most would require Ukrainian engineers to cut a hole in the armor of the Leopard 2 to add the armor inside the existing armor plates of the Leopard 2—a time consuming process that would take months to complete.
Thus, simply welding reactive armor plating on the outside of the tank will provide significantly improved armor protection—particularly for the weak side armor of the Leopard 2A4.
Based on photos from social media, Ukrainian engineers have already begun doing so.
Adding explosive armor to the Leopard 2A4 does not come without tradeoffs. It’s estimated that ERA will add between 1.5 to 2 tons of weight to the already heavy Leopard 2, making it harder to transport, less fuel efficient, slower, and hard to navigate in mud or other poor terrain conditions.
However, combat experience of the Turkish army strongly suggests this is a critical piece of protection for the Leopard 2A4, due to its vulnerability to flank attacks by ATGMs.
Adding ERA plating should significantly improve the Leopard 2A4’s survivability in such events.
Tactically, the failures of the Turkish Army at al-Bab bear numerous lessons: some obvious, some less so.
Among more obvious conclusions to draw are the importance of both tanks and infantry to begin shooting back at the enemy (to suppress enemy infantry from making subsequent attacks). This can partly be attributed to the fact that up to that point, the Turkish Army had never encountered serious antitank resistance by ISIL forces and being surprised in an ambush situation.
Other considerations include the need for better combined arms—cooperation between the tank and other arms of the military.
Turkish forces declined to commit their own infantry forces to the fight in Syria, fearing high casualties. Thus dismounted infantry screening Turkish tank forces at al-Bab consisted of infantry provided by SFA. The lack of coordination between the infantry and tanks proved to be fatal.
Furthermore, without sufficient Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Armored cars providing scouting ahead of the tank forces, Turkish tank forces were more susceptible to ambush by ISIL ATGM infantry.
Using surveillance drones, infantry scouts riding HMMWVs, Cougar MRAPs or other armored vehicles to scout ahead of the main body of tanks will prove to be essential to protect tank units from Russian ambushes.
Well trained dismounted infantry providing forward observation and flank protection will be crucial in any urban environment.
Of course, these are fairly basic elements of any combined arms operation, but it is clear that Russian ATGMs pose a sufficient threat such that ignoring these basic principles can and will be fatal to Ukrainian tankers, even in the vaunted Leopard 2 tank.
Lastly, it is important for Ukrainian commanders to take account of the strengths and weaknesses of the Leopard 2A4’s design. the Leopard 2A4 is designed for long range tank on armored vehicle combat. It is not optimized for urban combat, or close range combat.
Its vulnerable flank armor makes it far more susceptible to close range ambushes or flank attacks from close range by enemy armored units.
Furthermore, it’s important for Leopard 2 units to maintain distance and not charge at enemy formations. Far more Russian antitank weapons can hit a Leopard 2 tank from 200m, 1000m or 2000m, than at 3000m or 3500m.
Making use of the deadliness of Leopard 2s from long range fire and mobility is critical, as closing the distance eliminates many of the inherent advantages as well as making it easier to flank the tank to hit their vulnerable flank armor.
Thus, to the extent possible, Leopard 2A4s would best perform at the center of a company sized or larger armored formation. Placing platoons of less vulnerable western armor units (like the Challenger 2 or the Leopard 2A6), or conversely, more cost-effective Soviet era armored units like T-72s or T-64s to protect the flanks of a formation seem prudent.
Leopard 2A4s, with their vulnerabilities, should avoid combat in heavily forested areas or urban areas to the extent possible, leaving such terrain for tanks better designed for urban and close range warfare.
Contrary to the opinion of some observers, the Syrian War did not demonstrate that the Leopard 2A4 is an overpriced glass cannon.
It did, however, demonstrate that it is neither an invincible nor invulnerable weapon. Even far less technologically advanced armies like that of ISIL can exploit vulnerabilities of the Leopard 2A4, if its weaknesses are not accounted for.
As weakened a state as it now has fallen, the Russian Army remains a far more advanced and dangerous foe than ISIL. Avoiding the mistakes of the Turkish Army, and utilizing the Leopard 2A4 in ways that maximize its strengths will be one of the keys to Ukrainian victory.